By Ahmed Adam and R. Iniyan Ilango, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA) describes itself as an alliance between “three countries with vibrant democracies, from three regions of the developing world, active on a global scale, with the aim of examining themes on the international agenda and those of mutual interest.” IBSA promulgates “participatory democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law” as principles, norms and values that underpin IBSA Dialogue Forum. Therefore, on paper, it seems safe to assume that human rights is a significant makeweight in the activities and deliberations of both the intergovernmental body and its member states.
How does IBSA examine human rights in practice? As a forum that avers to play to an increasingly important role in the foreign policy of the three countries involved, how does IBSA’s promise of respect for human rights measure up against the reality of their engagement with the rest of the world? Stimulating contacts between developing countries and contributing to stronger South-South cooperation are crucial aspects of IBSA’s goals. This makes it essential to understand the kind of leadership IBSA provides to rest of the global South on pertinent human rights concerns at global venues.
Despite projecting itself as a ‘forum of democracies’, and proclaiming adherence to the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, IBSA’s collective role at the international stage in promoting and protecting these values have so far been limited. Since its inception, IBSA has been preoccupied with reorganising global economic and political architectures, including the United Nations (UN). Its main concerns have been on the lack of representation and space for the developing global South within such architectures. Consequently it also perceives existing international institutions as lacking the legitimacy to address contemporary global challenges. While much time and effort have been expended at IBSA meetings to debate UN reform, debates around the expansion of the UN Security Council, and the reordering of global institutions often supersede human rights in these meetings.
What then has been IBSA’s practical performance on human rights? The most important global venue for human rights is the UN Human Rights Council and IBSA’s role at the Council in recent times should give a glimpse of how the body is faring currently. The creation of the Council was indeed celebrated by IBSA as one crucial step towards making the UN more “democratic, legitimate, representative and responsive” in the context of contemporary global realities. IBSA sees the Council as a venue that would strengthen the voices and views of the developing world within the global human rights agenda.
Following the Council’s creation, India, Brazil and South Africa, through IBSA, declared their resolve to coordinate their contribution to the Council while asserting that the body would benefit from their “common vision” for the global human rights agenda. Although their “common vision to reaffirm the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights and fundamental freedoms” is vague and broad at the outset, conclusions of IBSA meetings reveal the contours of this “vision”. It often mirrors several arguments advanced by many other developing countries within the global human rights discourse. They include emphasis on the need to eliminate politicisation, double standards, and selectivity in the Council; promoting “cooperation on human rights with a view to exchanging information on national policies and initiatives, which could translate into dialogue and mutual benefit”; and affirmation of the centrality of technical assistance and capacity building for constructive dynamics in the activities of the Council.
Records of the Council show that IBSA member-states, especially India and South Africa, have a general aversion to country-specific scrutiny. They argue that they are politicised, selective or beyond the mandate of the Council and that their preference is to supporting calls for capacity building and technical assistance. India and South Africa have consistently shunned Council resolutions on key human rights situations in Asia including Iran and North Korea. Although India had been supportive of Council’s attention on Sri Lanka, it joined South Africa to abstain on the resolution in March 2014 that mandated the international investigation of alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. Unlike India and South Africa, Brazil has been consistent in supporting country-specific resolutions and debates in the Council.
Trajectory of debates in the Council on Syria, however, appears to suggest that Brazil might also be veering towards the direction taken by India and South Africa particularly on the Syrian situation. Since the first special session of the Council on Syria in April 2011, India and South Africa continue to admonish the Council for endangering Syria’s territorial integrity and selectively criticising Syria while ignoring other similar situations especially in the region. This, according to them, calls the Council’s credibility into question. Both countries, when they were in the Council as members – India from June 2011 and South Africa from January 2014 – abstained in the votes on Council resolutions on the situation in Syria. Brazil, historically, had been supportive of resolutions on Syria. However, in the most recent vote on Syria in March 2015, Brazil abstained giving similar reasoning as India and South Africa for its decision.
On thematic issues, at the first glance, voting records of India, Brazil and South Africa in the Human Rights Council and the Third Committee appear to suggest that they share a common, progressive position. This is particularly apparent in votes on thematic resolutions under agenda item 3 of the Council, and the corresponding resolutions in the Third Committee. Their voting in the Council and the Third Committee on resolutions on freedoms of expression and opinion, freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, freedom of religion, or other established civil and political rights have largely been positive when it comes to the overall vote itself or in terms of joining consensus. All three countries usually and consistently joined the consensus or voted in favour of resolutions that focus on issues around these themes. The March 2014 negative votes by India and South Africa on resolution 25/38 on the theme of peaceful protest although will stand out as one of the few negative examples of an opposite trend.
At the same time, recent developments, particularly, in the positions taken by India, Brazil and South Africa at the Council, demonstrate an emerging trend. Before a vote on positive initiatives they have begun to lead or support regressive initiatives that could subvert or at the least dilute certain established human rights norms and standards. For example at the 25th session of the Council in March 2014, South Africa with the support of a number of States including India tabled a number of amendments that would weaken the draft resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protest. Similarly, during the 25th session, India and South Africa supported a number of amendments to dilute the language of the resolution on the mandate of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders of which Brazil was a co-sponsor. In September 2014, India was instrumental in propelling a number of initiatives to blunt the Council resolution on civil society space. South Africa voted in favour of many of these amendments to the resolution on civil society space.
Many of these amendments appear to revolve around similar themes and reflect arguments propelled by developing countries that object to what they call the Western monopoly over human rights debates. They include, among others, affirming the supremacy of domestic law over international standards; attempts to diffuse the principle that international human rights standards ought to underpin national legislation; measures that could stunt the normative development on creating enabling environments for the exercise of these rights; adding remote principles on friendly relations and cooperation among states to project an imbalanced image of resolutions; undermining protections for rights through the unnecessary inclusion of national security language; and adding restrictive language on the responsibilities rights holders.
Surely, IBSA countries’ contribution to global human rights agenda has not always been regressive. While on one hand some IBSA States have colluded with a number of negative initiatives to divert the global human rights agenda with subversive proposals, they have also collaborated in positive initiatives to advance the human rights agenda. Since 2009, India, Brazil and South Africa have been key proponents and main sponsors of an innovative Council resolution on access to medicine. These resolutions periodically call on States to adopt a progressive interpretation of international trade agreements as well as procedures related to the protection of intellectual property. The resolution emphasises on the importance of avoiding barriers to the legitimate trade of affordable and quality medicine in the developing world. The Council resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity is another example of their positive contribution. While Brazil was one of the main sponsors and South Africa a key supporter of the resolution, India refrained from rejecting the resolution during the vote. Similarly, South Africa along with other countries in the global South successfully led the initiative, in June 2014, to prompt an intergovernmental process to elaborate a treaty on transnational corporations and other businesses with respect to human rights.
From recent Council sessions it is clear that IBSA’s visibility and coordination are still weak. On the other hand none of the arguments examined above indicate any original ideas on human rights emerging from IBSA or IBSA’s membership. Whenever there has been some effort to break from this trend and move towards a more original outlook it has been very weak and shrouded in layers of caution.
In terms of the process, there is hardly any evidence to suggest structured and formal coordination among IBSA States on their positions on human rights, despite the need and willingness expressed in IBSA meetings to do so. Alignment of their positions on certain issues appear to be, at best, coincidental, based on foreign policy notions that center around sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs. Often these positions are not exclusive to IBSA but are common for a wide range of states in the global South.
Initiatives in the Council indicate that, as a forum of some of the largest and most influential democracies in the global South IBSA could have the potential to rally the support of a large bloc of States in the global South. At the same time what is also clear is that currently IBSA is far from being such a leader.
IBSA could indeed provide a stronger forum for South-South cooperation; to protect and promote human rights globally; and make the global human rights architecture more legitimate and reflective of the needs of the developing world. IBSA’s performance however indicates lack of passion for its larger vision and pathological shyness in acknowledging its own potential for leadership in the global South. Nominal claims of fealty to principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law are not enough to lead the debate on the global human rights agenda. Repeated defensive reiterations of dated foreign policy precepts such as sovereignty will also not lead to this. To provide credible and legitimate leadership to the global South in human rights, IBSA has to learn to boldly leverage its weight and openly face the human rights problems that people in the global South, including its own citizens, face. Such an approach will require both consistent and principled positions that are in line with universal human rights standards. Furthermore in order to fully realise the grand vision behind IBSA, member states need to forego old and irrelevant dogma and adopt a creative foreign policy platform with a positive vision for human rights. One that is ready and willing to take the responsibility to lead on human rights and is cognisant of emerging and current realities.
There is an urgent need for IBSA and its members states to invest more efforts in this direction and to deliver on a vision they set out 12 years ago. In the absence of this the world may not wait for long and before long IBSA may sadly be subsumed by other competing alliances like BRICS which have no formal place for human rights in their vision.